Working Inside the Black Box: Assessment for Learning in the Classroom

Article excerpt

In their widely read article "Inside the Black Box," Mr. Black and Mr. Wiliam demonstrated that improving formative assessment raises student achievement. Now they and their colleagues report on a follow-up project that has helped teachers change their practice and students change their behavior so that everyone shares responsibility for the students' learning.

IN 1998 "Inside the Black Box," the predecessor of this article, appeared in this journal.1 Since then we have learned a great deal about the practical steps needed to meet the purpose expressed in the article's subtitle: "raising standards through classroom assessment."

In the first part of "Inside the Black Box," we set out to answer three questions. The first was, Is there evidence that improving formative assessment raises standards? The answer was an unequivocal yes, a conclusion based on a review of evidence published in over 250 articles by researchers from several countries.2 Few initiatives in education have had such a strong body of evidence to support a claim to raise standards.

This positive answer led naturally to the second question: Is there evidence that there is room for improvement? Here again, the available evidence gave a clear and positive answer, presenting a detailed picture that identified three main problems: 1) the assessment methods that teachers use are not effective in promoting good learning, 2) grading practices tend to emphasize competition rather than personal improvement, and 3) assessment feedback often has a negative impact, particularly on low-achieving students, who are led to believe that they lack "ability" and so are not able to learn.

However, for the third question -- Is there evidence about how to improve formative assessment? -- the answer was less clear. While the evidence provided many ideas for improvement, it lacked the detail that would enable teachers to implement those ideas in their classrooms. We argued that teachers needed "a variety of living examples of implementation."

The Journey: Learning with Teachers

Since 1998, we have planned and implemented several programs in which groups of teachers in England have been supported in developing innovative practices in their classrooms, drawing on the ideas in the original article. While this effort has amply confirmed the original proposals, it has also added a wealth of new findings that are both practical and authentic. Thus we are now confident that we can set out sound advice for the improvement of classroom assessment.

The KMOFAP Project

To carry out the exploratory work that was called for, we needed to collaborate with a group of teachers willing to take on the risks and extra work involved, and we needed to secure support from their schools and districts. Funding for the project was provided through the generosity of the Nuffield Foundation, and we were fortunate to find two school districts -- Oxfordshire and Medway, both in southern England -- whose supervisory staff members understood the issues and were willing to work with us. Each district selected three secondary schools: Oxfordshire chose three coeducational schools, and Medway chose one coeducational school, one boys' school, and one girls' school. Each school selected two science teachers and two mathematics teachers. We discussed the plans with the principal of each school, and then we called the first meeting of the 24 teachers. So in January 1999, the King's-Medway-Oxfordshire Formative Assessment Project (KMOFAP) was born.

Full details of the project can be found in our book, Assessment for Learning: Putting It into Practice.3 For the present purpose, it is the outcomes that are important. The findings presented here are based on the observations and records of visits to classrooms by the King's College team, records of meetings of the whole group of teachers, interviews with and writing by the teachers themselves, and a few discussions with student groups. …

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